What to Focus on Right Now

A few recent client situations sent me rushing back to my old Stephen Coveybook, “The Seven Habits of Effective People” and specifically to look up his Urgent/Important matrix where Covey classified tasks according to their importance or urgency. It is a good reminder of what to stay focused on — the Urgent and Important tasks.

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In our consulting work we use two tools that help teams stay in this urgent/important space; these are critical path analysisand analytical hierarchy process. Both permit prioritization to identify the high value activities that generate the biggest bang for the buck (i.e. 20% of the things that generate 80% of the value).

So with finite resources, you can only focus on a few critical things every day. Which things are they and which will have the greatest impact on your future success? Often groups of people get caught up with either trying to do everything at once (i.e., all four quadrants) or focusing on the wrong things, such as the things that fall into "not urgent and not important" bucket.

In the case of critical path, it is the contiguous network of activities that lead to a projectend date, that if slipped, will push out a project completion. Conversely, if any of these can be accelerated, the project will finish sooner. This causes the critical path to shift to a new set of highest priority activities. So we get a new “Urgent and Important” task list on which to focus that week. The more frequent the refreshinterval the more times this “Urgent and Important” list changes.

Since there are a millions things that are important in a project, the trick is to focus a team on those things that are “Urgent and Important” (i.e., the critical path) versus Important, but not Urgent or Not Urgent and Not important tasks.

In a decision hierarchy we are also prioritizing our choices of where to focus. We use time as a decision criteria to force the Urgent alternatives to the top of the list. Again Covey’s task prioritization matrix works to describe what to focus on — Urgent and Important.

Either in a project schedule or in a decision model, it is critical to focus finite resources on Urgent and Important things and away from Not urgent and Not Important work. Since resources are in fact finite, the trick is to use them where you get the greatest return on their investment and to not waste them on things that will not drive success.